Are you serving up hamburger feedback? Here is why it might not be the best choice

by | 10.08.2023

Have you ever given hamburger feedback? If you’ve sandwiched criticism between two compliments, you’ve served up a classic hamburger feedback. While it’s a widely taught method and may seem tasty at first glance, it may not always be the most effective way to communicate constructive feedback.

What Is Hamburger Feedback?

Imagine your feedback as a hamburger. The top and bottom buns represent the positive comments, and the meat in the middle is the criticism. It sounds appetizing, right? Softening the criticism with praise might seem like a polite and gentle approach, but it could be undermining your message.

Why It May Not Work

Most of us have learned in school to give feedback in the hamburger format. To start with something positive, include the criticism in the middle, and then end with something positive. That makes sense, right? This leaves the other with a nice feeling and makes it easier to swallow the criticism. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happens. On the contrary, most of us have learned to expect the criticism lurking in the middle. So when somebody gives us praise, we become suspicious and start to wait for the “but.” “Okay, yes, yes, nice words, but where’s the criticism?” With the hamburger approach, the often well-intended, honest praise is ignored. First, the receiver doesn’t really pay attention to the praise because they’re looking for criticism. After the criticism is given, they don’t pay attention to the praise because they’re analyzing the criticism. So all the genuine positive feedback the giver wants to give ends up going to waste. Even worse is if the praise isn’t genuine but forced or even totally made up. Its only role is to work as a buffer against the criticism. This makes the feedback giver seem insincere and deceptive. Made-up praise weakens the collegial relationship, and it doesn’t make it easier for the receiver to accept the criticism. There’s also the possibility the person receiving the feedback only hears the positives and ends up ignoring the negative altogether. Because there was more positive than negative, it can’t be that bad? The hamburger makes it possible for the receiver not to take the criticism seriously, which isn’t what the feedback giver is hoping for. The worst part is that the hamburger closes the conversation. If we try to hide the uncomfortable message between two positives, it doesn’t leave room for discussion. The person receiving the feedback is left with uncertainty: “What part should I focus on? What was the message here?” As feedback should be the beginning of the conversation, we should give the receiver time to process the criticism and ask more about it — not hurry to end the conversation and make the other feel better.

Serve an open-face sandwich instead

Instead of using a hamburger, give praise and criticism separately. If possible, use completely different occasions. However, sometimes the situation requires us to include both in the same instance. If you need to give both praise and criticism at the same time, separate the two deliberately: These are the things that are/went well. These are the things that could be improved. This was a short lesson from our course “Feedback for self-organizing teams”. Learn more and enroll to become great at giving and receiving feedback.

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